Every new entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe has multiple obstacles to overcome. First, and most importantly, the film must fit into the rest of the MCU in a way that feels genuine and earned. Also, it must be careful not to retread old ideas and instead offer us something fresh. The latest offering, Ant-Man, ably navigates these potential pitfalls and presents a deftly told story full of humor and emotion that rivals some of the best moments in all of the MCU. All told, this is probably the funniest Marvel movie to date, with its most direct competition being last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Further, the theme of living up to the expectations of one’s family is probably the most human and relatable that we’ve seen. That being said, Ant-Man is not afraid to kick some serious ass and present some truly ground-breaking special effects-fueled action sequences in service of its greater story. That these scenes and effects are in service of telling a nuanced heist story instead of a grandiose world-saving kind of story is just one of the many strengths of Ant-Man, but the film is far from flawless.
Ant-Man tells the story of Hank Pym (Michael Douglass) and his invention of a suit which allows him to shrink to the size of an ant, and also to telepathically control ants. This suit is fueled by the Pym Particle, a ground-breaking invention Pym made in the past and has kept to himself all these years. With his predecessor Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) on the brink of discovering the Pym Particle formula, and intent to sell its secrets to the highest bidder, Pym recruits master thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to wear the Ant-Man suit and burgle Cross’ new Yellowjacket suit and also destroy all the research. With the help of Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the narrative flows more like a passing of the torch than a strict origin story, which is an incredibly welcome change from the formulaic origin story to which we’ve become accustomed. All characters feel well-developed and are superbly acted, though Lilly occasionally distracts with some odd line-readings. Side characters also exceed expectations in this film, particularly Michael Peña, who steals almost every scene he is in.
A major thematic focus of Ant-Man is the evolution of the mentor/mentee relationship, whether familial or professional. Three relationships are at the core of the narrative: Hank Pym and Hope, Hank Pym and Darren Cross, and Scott Lang and his young daughter. By including many different interactions between these characters, we get to see this relationship at its very infancy with Scott and his daughter while also seeing it damaged and repaired with Pym and his daughter. This is, of course, in great contrast to the lone professional mentorship in the film between Pym and Cross which sours to the point of utter betrayal and hatred. These relationships are crucial to the film, as they provide the basis for the motivations of practically every major character. This is also where we find Ant-Man to be particularly pleasing, as these relationships and the heist surrounding them is the major thrust of the narrative. Paradoxically, by showing such restraint with the conflicts by keeping them small and personal, we feel that there is more at stake in Ant-Man than there ever was during either Avengers film.
Unfortunately, while Ant-Man was able to escape the “bigger is better” problem with regards to Marvel conflicts, it was not able to answer Marvel’s villain problem. From the very beginning in Iron Man, Marvel has had lackluster villains, and Ant-Man is no exception. Once again, the major villain of the story is simply a bigger, badder version of our hero with a couple additional features. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and even Captain America: The Winter Soldier all fall into this basic trap, but it is particularly upsetting that it has to keep happening in origin stories like this. But, not only is Yellowjacket basically just Ant-Man with wings and a laserbeam, it is implied that one aspect of Darren Cross’ motivation for his whole scheme is that his work on the Pym Particle is altering his mind. What are we to conclude from that? Is Cross a bad guy, or was he altered from his basically good scientist / business man type into a cold-hearted killer a la Hawkeye in the first Avengers film? The villains continue to be the aspect of Marvel films which feature the laziest writing, but Ant-Man’s portrayal of Cross/Yellowjacket may take the cake.
Poor villain aside, though, Ant-Man is a successful entry into the MCU with a great deal of fun and heart. Every single reference to other characters in the MCU is done perfectly; nothing feels tacked-on, thrown-away, or heavy-handed in the least. In fact, the best sequence in the film may have been when Ant-Man fights Falcon while attempting to infiltrate an Avengers base. By pitting two super-people with different powers against each other, you get variety in the fight. Characters can explore and exploit each others’ weaknesses in a far more engaging way than what we see in the Yellowjacket fight. In addition, both end credit scenes are absolutely dead-on, much like how Captain America: The Winter Soldier nailed both of its post-credits teases. Ultimately, the strengths of Ant-Man far outweigh the flaws. It should be celebrated for offering such a change of pace from the normal Marvel fare and trying to tell a different kind of story in this universe.